Forest Service stalls on Wolf Creek land trade order

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A federal court has ordered the U.S. Forest Service to release more documents related to a controversial land trade and development proposal at Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado.

Controversial swap would enable massive development project at Wolf Creek Pass

Staff Report

The U.S. Forest Service continues to delay the release of records related to a controversial land trade in southwestern Colorado.

Last week, a federal court granted the agency’s request for a 30-day extension to turn over letters, memos and other documents from a long-running review of the Wolf Creek land trade — a swap that would enable a massive resort development in the middle of an important wildlife area.

In September, U.S. District Court Judge Wiley Daniel ruled that the Forest Service violated the Freedom of Information Act and ordered the agency to release the documents on the controversial land trade by Oct. 30. Conservation groups critical of the trade say the paper trail may show that the decision-making process was tainted by political influence.The land trade was approved earlier this year by Rio Grande Forest Supervisor Dan Dallas. It would give the developer, Leavell-McCombs Joint Venture, a way to access a parcel of private land that’s nearly surrounded by public national forest lands by swapping 205 federal acres for 177 acres of private land. If it stands, the trade would enable construction of a resort village for up to 8,000 people.

The 20-page ruling issued by Daniel Sept. 30 says the Forest Service failed to justify its decision to withhold thousands of pages from public scrutiny, and that the agency didn’t do a thorough search for other pertinent documents related to the trade.

Government agencies have the right to withhold certain documents under a variety of FOIA exemptions, but Judge Daniel pointed out that, in general, courts have ordered that FOIA is to be “construed broadly in favor of disclosure, and that its exceptions are to be narrowly construed.”

“Even when faced with a court order, the Forest Service still failed to allocate the necessary resources to get us the records we’re legally entitled to,” said Matt Sandler, staff attorney with Rocky Mountain Wild. “We have been forced to operate at a disadvantage throughout this decision making process,” Sandler said.

The new delay raised renewed suspicions that the Forest Service is trying to hide information related to the swap.

The various conservation groups allied against the land trade and development said they’ll set up a Wikileaks-style document center when they get the documents to enable public access to paper trail.

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